Intersections

Taking & Keeping vs. Receiving & Giving: A Kingdom Framework

by: 
Susan M. Haack, MD, MA, MDiv, FACOG

In 2013, Google announced the launch of a new company, Calico, “whose mission is to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan . . . us[ing] that knowledge to devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives.”[1] In the words of Business Insider: “Google Is Launching A Company That Hopes To Cure Death.”[2] While on the surface this may appear to be a laudable goal, it is illustrative of the attitude of “taking and keeping,” one that is prevalent in our world and that guides much secular bioethical thinking.

Taking versus Receiving, Keeping versus Giving

Evaluating complex bioethical issues requires establishing a particular perspective or framework through which to view the issue at hand. One way of theologically framing bioethical issues, particularly those relating to the beginning and end of life, is through the dialectic of “taking and keeping” versus “receiving and giving.”[3] While there is always a subtle danger in painting our world in black and white colors when in fact it consists of more than 50 shades of gray, reframing issues in this way can help to crystalize a Christian attitude and theological approach to various life and death issues.

This dialectic, coursing subtly through the narrative of Scripture, is introduced in Genesis with the receiving of the “Tree of Life” (along with the beauty and magnificence of creation) and the taking of the fruit from the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Receiving God’s gift was life; taking for oneself was death, for it revealed a lack of trust that God had given and would continue to give all that was needed for life.[4] This theme continues to play out in the Old Testament where the proper response to receiving is giving, whether in support of the oppressed and those less fortunate, in offerings for God’s bounteous grace, or in praise. In the New Testament, this mutuality of receiving and giving is lived out in the early church (Acts 2). As our exemplar, even the Son did not “grasp” at His equality with God (Phil 2:6) or attempt to keep His life, but laid it down for us (John 10:11, 1 John 3:16). Similarly, the dialectic ultimately takes the form of our very lives, which we have received from God and paradoxically offer back to Him as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1).

An attitude of “taking and keeping” metaphorically may have its roots in our very nature. Humans have a palmar grasp reflex that develops and is present in utero. Infants enter the world with fists tightly clenched, grasping at anything that brushes their palm. Any attempt to remove an object from their grasp results, like the old “Chinese handcuffs,” in their grasping the object ever more tightly. While this reflex reportedly disappears by 5–6 months of age, the inclination to grasp at things remains, merely taking other forms as we continue to grasp and hold tightly to things in our lives. Even life itself becomes such an object—a possession—something to be grasped and held tightly. Life is what one makes of it, what one constructs for oneself, and therefore one can do with it as one pleases. And since this life is all that there is, all effort and energy is expended in clinging to this life for its own sake. To live in the illusion that we are in control of life, that we gain understanding by our own rational powers, and that we determine or choose our destinies is to live in the dialectic of taking and keeping.[5]

Yet in a kingdom dialectic of “receiving and giving,” life—and eternal life—is a gift we receive. Our lives and our destinies are not our own; we are mere stewards of the lives we are gifted (1 Cor 6:19). And the paradox of this “reciprocity of life”[6] continues as we gain our lives by losing them, by giving them away in self-spending love, only to receive them back again.[7] We can do so because we know that, ultimately, God has better things prepared for us. And so we can hold lightly to the gift of life knowing that we will receive it back once again.

Hope versus False Hope

While both of these attitudes are grounded in hope, that hope springs from differing sources. For those governed by an attitude of “taking and keeping,” hope springs from the finite and the fallible. It is grounded in human rational capacities and accomplishments, in life here and now. Much of this hope is fueled by the scientific and technological advances in medicine of recent decades. The goal of these advances—whether stated or implicit, intended or commandeered—is to conquer death. It has, therefore, promoted and nurtured the false hope of immortality. The value underlying these advances: life should be “kept”—preserved—at any cost. But ironically, “taking and keeping” also underlies “the right to die” for when death is unavoidable, it may be precipitously induced. In short, when life can no longer be “kept,” it may be “taken.”

But for those governed by a Kingdom dialectic of “receiving and giving,” hope springs from God and His promises, and is grounded in God’s purposes for them and for all of creation, now and forever. Fulfillment and flourishing are gifts of God and grounded in a living relationship with Him.[8] From this perspective, technology, too, is viewed as a gift over which we are stewards. It is a gift we are entrusted to use to ameliorate the effects of the Fall, but we do so within the limits of the purposes that God has set for creation. The immortality sought is not on this earth but in the kingdom of God’s redeemed creation. Jesus Christ alone has conquered death (2 Tim 1:10). And He is the One who, as King, gives life and gives it abundantly (John 10:10). There is only One who is able to conquer death and has done so: Jesus Christ.

The Kingdom Comes

We live in a complex world, marked by multifaceted issues and ambiguous technological solutions, both of which are shrouded in uncertainty. Overlaid onto that world, a Kingdom framework of “receiving and giving” can be an invaluable tool for evaluating and establishing a Christian approach to bioethical issues at the beginning and end of life, as will be further developed in a future forum.

 



[1] Quote from Calico’s homepage, https://www.calicolabs.com/ (accessed August 9, 2016).

[2] Jay Yarrow, “Google is Launching a Company That Hopes to Cure Death,” Business Insider: Tech, September 18, 2013, http://www.businessinsider.com/google-is-launching-a-company-that-hopes-to-cure-death-2013-9 (accessed June 3, 2016).

[3] Jonathan R. Wilson, God’s Good World: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 76, 83, 87, 97–126. In these pages, Wilson discusses the antithetical concepts of “taking and keeping” and “giving and receiving” in light of the doctrine of creation, ideas which he sees ultimately as concepts related to death and life respectively. They lend themselves easily to applications in bioethical issues related to life and death.

[4] Ibid., 109.

[5] Ibid., 83.

[6] Ibid., 109.

[7]Michelle Harrington and Daniel P. Sulmasy, “Spiritual Preparation,” in Dying in the Twenty-First Century: Toward a New Ethical Framework for the Art of Dying Well, ed. Lydia Dugdale (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015), 97.

[8] Wilson, 83.

 

Susan M. Haack, MD, MA, MDiv, FACOG

Susan M. Haack, MD, MA, MDiv, FACOG

Dr. Haack is a board-certified obstetrician gynecologist with an MA in Bioethics and a MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. She completed her residency in obstetrics-gynecology at Northwestern University-McGaw Medical Center in Chicago. She has spoken and written on issues pertaining to beginning of life, end of life, professionalism and right of conscience. She currently practices consultative gynecology, and is a former Associate Fellow (2010-2014) of the Academy of Fellows at The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity.